York County’s Frank Walker gets SC House honors for war heroics

Frank Walker examines the resolution presented to him by the S.C. House of Representatives on Tuesday, honoring him for his actions in Vietnam that saved the lives of six Marines.
Frank Walker examines the resolution presented to him by the S.C. House of Representatives on Tuesday, honoring him for his actions in Vietnam that saved the lives of six Marines. bmarchant@heraldonline.com

Frank Walker appreciates all the attention, but he’s quick to redirect it somewhere else. Many people don’t know about his heroics as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, or that it earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and because of it a firing range at Fort Jackson bears his name.

When they credit him with saving the lives of six Marines downed behind enemy lines, he talks about the efforts of service men and women fighting America’s wars today.

And when presented Tuesday with a resolution passed in his honor by the S.C. House of Representatives, he blanches a little about being called the second-most highly decorated former National Guard officer in South Carolina – although he concedes that’s probably true.

“Well, I don’t know everybody in the Guard, do you?” Walker said. “I hate stolen valor.”

But in the eyes of his family, the retired lieutenant colonel is a hero for the flight he took in 1972. And now he is a hero in the eyes of his state as well.

A Lesslie native, Walker came back from Vietnam to run his family’s electric business while staying active in the Army National Guard. But even though he’d known the family for years, Walker’s state representative, Ralph Norman, didn’t know his service history until he was invited to a 2008 ceremony naming a Fort Jackson weapons range after the former pilot.

“He had medals, I’ve never seen so many medals, spread out on two or three tables,” Norman said. “And like all heroes, he never said a word about it.”

On July 11, 1972, a transport helicopter nicknamed the “Jolly Green Giant” went down in North Vietnamese-held territory. Of the 60 Marines aboard, only six survived, and they were quickly pinned down under enemy fire. Rescue missions had to turn back because of the intensity of the firefight.

Finally, with the sun setting, two volunteer pilots – one of them Walker – made a final push to save the six Marines. Walker flew a Loach chopper, designed to fly low over the treeline and draw out enemy fire. Flying and landing in low-light conditions made the mission even more dangerous.

“Frank said, ‘It was God, adrenaline and my 24-year-old eyesight that allowed me to fly with no light,’” Norman said on the floor of the S.C. House. “‘We had to fight our way in and fight our way out.’”

Walker landed his copter to shield the Marines from the source of the shooting, then tossed ammunition overboard to make room for the three additional men crowded onto the small craft, just managing with the extra weight to take off and reach safety.

But Walker didn’t have those kind of heroics in mind when he signed up to be a pilot. In January of 1970, he had just started infantry basic training.

“I was in a foxhole with another guy in the freezing cold at Fort Benning, and a helicopter flew over us,” Walker remembers. “He said, ‘I wish I was in one of those.’ And I said, ‘Have they got heaters?’ ”

By June, he was in training to be a pilot, and by 1971, a shortage of chopper pilots during a North Vietnamese advance caused Walker to be diverted from Hawaii to the frontlines, and his new Loach.

“They called it a flying target,” he said. “I thought they were kidding.”

Almost 45 years later, some 50 people – from Walker’s wife of 40 years, Kathie, to his extended Lesslie cousins – crowded into the House gallery to watch him receive his award.

“The recognition is well-deserved after all these years,” said Betsy Walker, Frank’s sister. “When they came home, it wasn’t necessarily like that.”

Six years younger than her brother, she said Walker was always protective of her – even against her other brother, who was even older.

“I remember when he came to visit me at Clemson right after he got back,” Betsy Walker said. “All the girls wanted to meet him.”

But instead, Walker met his wife. Kathie. while they were both stationed at Fort Jackson after his tour. While he transitioned to the National Guard, she would remain an active Army Reserve officer until 1994, also retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The male Lt. Col. Walker said he felt “blessed” to receive a resolution from the House, and later get a chance to meet Gov. Nikki Haley in her Statehouse office. He hoped the day would send a message of support to present-day soldiers.

“Vietnam was 50 years ago. ... It’s the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and other places who deserve the credit now,” Walker said. “They’re under so much more pressure than we were.”

In a letter he wrote to Norman ahead of Tuesday’s presentation, read by the representative from the floor, Walker again deflected credit for his achievements.

“It really belongs to God, the crew chief, gunners and pilots of F Troop and the Fourth Cavalry that supported my mission,” Norman read. “We are brothers connected by an unbreakable bond.”

But as the only brother present, the House gave the resolution to Walker.

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome